Gettin’ schooled by award-winning teacher Rafe Esquith

Although The New York Times once called Los Angeles public school teacher Rafe Esquith “a genius and a saint” and Oprah bought him a van to transport his kids and Queen Elizabeth II gave him an honorary MBE, when he comes to Milwaukee this week, it will be as an author.

Esquith is the author of three books about educating America’s kids. He’s currently on tour in support of the latest, “Lighting Their Fires: How Parents and Teachers Can Raise Extraordinary Kids,” now out in paperback.

He visits Next Chapter Bookshop, 10976 N. Port Washington Rd., in Mequon, on Thursday, July 29 at 7 p.m. Admission is free.

In “Lighting Their Fires,” Esquith uses a trip to a Los Angeles Dodgers game with his students to illustrate his teaching philosophies and methods and from there he offers concrete solutions to parents and teachers about helping to get kids on the track to greatness and keep them there.

A lot of the advice would have been called common sense 20 years ago — like teaching kids the importance of being on time — things have changed in America’s schools and this advice is worth repeating.

Most importantly, Esquith teaches parents that opportunities to instill important life lessons and fuel kids’ natural curiosity and drive to learn are around us all the time. We simply need to grab those opportunities and turn our kids toward them.

We got a chance to ask Esquith about his book and the state of public education in the U.S. in advance of his Milwaukee visit … What do you think the overall state of public education is in America these days? Are the 90 percent of American kids that attend public schools getting a good education?

Rafe Esquith: These children are not getting a good education. Our schools simply reflect our society, and it is a society that frightens me. It is all fast food, in which simplistic solutions are offered to solve complex problems. In addition, the level of discourse has deteriorated. Honest disagreement and discussion has been replaced by boorish name calling. Our schools simply are part of it.

A child today in public school often is in a classroom taught by a defeated teacher in a system that crushes the spirit of that teacher. There are no consequences for bad behavior, and as a result, good kids suffer because of bad ones. Only 32 percent of the elementary kids at my school will even finish high school! This tragedy is because the system is failing them.

OMC: I’m not sure if L.A. has been affected by teacher layoffs this year but in Milwaukee 482 teachers were laid off recently (although since then about 90 have been called back). And teachers — and their unions — are being blamed for most of the ills in the public schools. What kind of effect does all this have on those who have dedicated themselves to educating children?

RE: Layoffs are hurting us here. We lost 14 teachers this last year at my school alone, including some of our better ones. Sadly, unions — and I am a proud member — are partly to blame for this. I think it is wrong when the better teachers are dismissed because they are younger or haven’t taken a particular course in college.

Next year, my school may also lose its orchestra, chorus, and even library! The effect has been catastrophic. Many outstanding spirits have begun to give up, and of course, the children lose.

OMC: How can teachers regain their reputation as pillars of society? Or is that out of their control now? Are the perceptions too hard to overcome?

RE: I think it is out of control. Our society cares more about basketball players and reality television. I keep going because I do not care what society thinks. As I teach my own students, there is a difference between reputation and character. Reputation is what people think you are, and character is what you really are.

Of course, this perception makes the job far more difficult, but I will not sugarcoat my story and tell teachers we have an easy job or that with a couple of tricks we can teach children. This is a hard job. I try to keep things real, and because I still teach in a leaky classroom in a public school, I have some credibility.

OMC: Do you pay attention to all the attention focused these days on testing, on NCLB, on Race to the Top, on teaching trends and all of that? I get the sense from the book that you’ve got a successful approach based on your experiences and your beliefs and it’s working. Does that insulate you a little from the noise beyond the classroom walls?

RE: Great question! I have no problem giving the kids the tests. They do very well on them because they are well prepared. By doing well, it has insulated me from anyone trying to stop the things that I do that are outside the box. I have tried to beat the administration at its own game.

By playing the game of testing, I have been able to do more things that really matter. Of course, my students are taught that doing well on a test is a good thing, but not nearly as important as being honest and decent in a world that is often dishonest and indecent.

OMC: Have you gotten feedback from parents and other teachers about how they’ve used the information in the book and the results they’ve had?

RE: I have received tremendous feedback, and I am amazed at how many people have written to appreciate my efforts. I receive mail from all over the world, as my books have been translated.

After my second book, most of the letters I received were from parents, and that is why I wrote “Lighting Their Fires.” The book simply answered certain questions I get asked all the time. Interestingly, the letters from Russia or Brazil or China have the same tone. Parents are trying to raise decent kids in a world that often is not.

OMC: I know you take kids to games all the time, but maybe you can tell us a bit about how the baseball theme came to be the presentational foundation of the book.

RE: I thought a baseball game represents our world in a nutshell. Baseball is a beautiful game, but today a child at a game must deal with drunken fans, beach balls, blasting music and constant advertisements. People come late and leave early. Many don’t even watch the game.

In this environment, I can model a different sort of behavior. I respect the players and the fans around me. I learn about the game and discuss it with my students. We focus, have fun and understand. Also, it is a reminder that teaching and parenting takes place all the time, even in places where people don’t often think about teaching or parenting.

OMC: If you were talking to a parent and a teacher who hadn’t read the book and you could give them one piece of advice about raising extraordinary kids, what would it be?

RE: Be the person you want your child to be. Read with them every night, even when they are older and have started school. Have dinner with your kids every night with the television off. Let the kids express themselves at the table, and make sure they understand your expectations and feel comfortable coming to you on bad days.

OMC: Last but not least, according to you, an internationally respected teacher, what will it take to turn America’s public education system — or at least the struggling urban schools and districts — around?

RE: There are no shortcuts. We must not look to the simple solution that test scores and college prep will save us. We need to support creative teachers. President Obama would be better off listening to people like Linda Darling-Hammond instead of Mr. Duncan. Her message is more difficult to swallow, but only if we tell the truth about education can we ever more forward.

Currently, “successful” schools portrayed in the media because of high test scores are not nearly as good as made out to be. They hire media consultants and are financed by powerful people to make them look good. I fail all the time, and I am a good teacher. When we are willing to honestly look at our mistakes and realize testing is not everything, we can move forward.

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